The top four returners from a year ago were all in it to win it during the Division I boys cross-country state championship on Saturday at the National Trail Raceway in Hebron.
Thirteen of the top 17 harriers from the 2018 state meet graduated, including the top seven finishers, meaning University School senior Justin Iler, who finished 10th as a junior, was one of the favorites, along with Pickerington North senior Matt Duvall, Uniontown Lake junior Nathan Moore and Dublin Jerome senior Elliott Cook.
But there were 365 days of training, which left plenty of time for other top-tier runners in the state to close the gap on those four guys, including Rogers senior Gabe Foster, who took out the first mile on Saturday in a blistering 4:48.4 to own the lead, before quickly fading to finish 26th overall in 15:57.2.
By the team the pack thinned out at the 2-mile mark, Iler, Duvall, Moore and Cook had separated themselves from the rest of the field.
And with 800 meters to go, it was down to a three-man race among Iler, Duvall and Moore, who were within 0.8 second of one another, while Cook had faded back 14.1 seconds to fourth place.
“Duvall was doing a lot of surges at that point in the race, and I knew I had to keep on going with him,” Iler said. “And at that point and stage, there was a lot of separation. Right after we made that last turn back around the race track, and (Duvall) was surging before then, but after that last turn, I didn’t have anything left.
“And (Moore), he had a little bit more than I did, and he kept fighting through it. So, I had to settle on third at the point because I couldn’t keep pushing any harder.”
Duvall won the 5-kilometer race in 15:13.0 to secure the state title among 186 runners in the field, while Moore finished runner-up in 15:19.1, Iler took third in 15:25.6 and Cook was fourth in 15:34.3.
Iler shed 54.3 seconds off his top-10 finish from a year ago to repeat an all-Ohio showing on his third trip to the state cross-country championship. And he did with a sinus infection that put a damper on his preparations in the days leading up to his race.
“On Tuesday, I started to come down with an illness, and it was pretty tough on me, not only from a physiological standpoint, but from a mental one, too,” Iler said. “But come Saturday morning, I was feeling great, wasn’t really exhibiting any symptoms, and I was ready to go.
“But I suspect I couldn’t push any harder in the last 600 (meters) because of my illness. I keep coughing up mucus. It’s unfortunate. But I’m content with third. I think it was a great performance by me given the conditions. I think I mentally toughened it out.”
Leaving it all out there, Iler recorded a lifetime best performance.
Not to mention, Iler led University to finish 11th among 20 squads in the team standings with 275 points, as the Preppers were bested only by schools with larger enrollment figures.
Also scoring points for University School, junior Griffin Walsh finished 56th in 16:38.7, junior Ben LaFave took 61st in 16:41.9, sophomore Nate Miller was 68th in 16:49.1 and senior Graham Clark finished 88th in 16:57.5, while seniors Cameron Monesmith, 17:22.8, and Riley Steiner, 17:38.9, rounded out the Preppers’ state squad.
The University harriers were in 15th as a team with 800 meters to go, before moving up four spots. Clark, in particular, reeled in 10 guys in the final half mile of his race.
“The miles we’ve been putting in since the summer, and the workouts that we’ve been grinding, and the preparation for the meets, we know what we’ve been getting ourselves into,” Iler said. “We have strategy sessions before each meet to discuss the map and our competitors and who we need to beat. So, it really comes down to our preparation in allowing us to excel in those later miles.”